Monday, November 16, 2009


If you’ve been following this blog you know I am a lover of Sumo. This past weekend the year’s final 15-day tournament (called a Basho) began. Thanks to the magic of satellite TV I’m able to record and watch each day’s top division fights. The November Basho is always held in Fukuoka (on the island of Kyushu), where I worked for one week each month from 1994 to 1998. I attended the Kyushu Basho twice and feel a personal connection with the event and the setting. Nostalgia is the emotion I feel as I watch.

I became a Sumo fan shortly after I arrived in Fukuoka, so I’ve been following the sport closely for 15 years. Sumo is easily spoofed. Big fat guys wearing diapers rolling around on a small sand platform. For me it is ancient tradition and ritual combined with physical skills (speed, agility, balance,) martial arts strategy and, above all, concentration and mental toughness. Together they offer a compelling spectacle.

According to legend, 2,500 years ago a sumo match between two gods determined possession of the Japanese islands. Myth aside, the recorded history of Sumo spans many centuries. My acquaintance with it, therefore, covers a small sliver of time. Even so, in these past few years I’ve seen many changes in Sumo, most not for the better.

Match-fixing charges have been leveled at the sport. Brutal hazing of young wrestlers has led to injuries and even death (those responsible are in prison.) Several wrestlers have been banned because of drug use. Some top performers (mostly foreign-born) have been publicly rebuked for breaking Sumo Association rules and/or for behavior offensive to Japanese cultural norms.

But most troublesome for the average Japanese fan is the fact that in recent years no Japanese wrestlers have risen to the top spot in the rankings. The last Japanese Grand Champion (Yokozuna) retired in January 2003. Since then no Japanese has come close to promotion to Yokozuna. Indeed, only once in the last 33 Bashos (there are six a year) has a Japanese wrestler won a tournament championship.

This is a disgrace. After all, Sumo is the national sport of Japan. “Face” is important in that part of the world. And face has been lost. The top ranks of Sumo are dominated by Mongolians. When I began watching there were no Mongolians in the top two divisions. (Two Americans held the rank of Yokozuna, but the last retired in 2003.) Today there are two Yokozunas and both are Mongolians. The best of the younger wrestlers are Mongolian. Also, several good wrestlers are from Eastern Europe, a new phenomenon.

The result: Sumo is far less popular in Japan than it used to be. Frequently the arenas are not full, especially on weekdays. In fact, when I watched Day 1 of the Kyushu Basho yesterday I noticed that the Kokusai Center in Fukuoka was not full. Special flags fly when all seats are sold, and there were no special flags on display. Day 1, always a Sunday, is always sold out. Always. For every Basho. But not yesterday. I have no memory of this happening before.

The people that do show up to watch Sumo are, to be straight, old. The stands are filled with middle aged and older spectators. There are a few younger people, sure, but they are very much in the minority. Not a good sign.

Finally, Sumo is not attracting young Japanese recruits like it used to. The Sumo lifestyle and training is rigid and rigorous. Financial rewards don’t compare well with other sports. Today’s teenagers are bombarded with different ways to spend their time, most more fun than Sumo. So the pipeline is drying up. Should this continue it would only exacerbate what is already a negative trend. And people like me will be the losers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, from Japan.

9:18 PM  

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